Freedom of speech has been going extinct in the UK for a few years now. On paper, we have the right to freely express ourselves, but in practice, if someone gets offended or if you’re spreading conspiracy theories, they will come for you with torches and demand your head. This rather long article is my way of getting my head around the subject as well as an attempt to defend free speech and why I think we should embrace it, cherish it and use it in the name of truth.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear”George Orwell
Cover your eyes
I don’t have too many memories of my father. He left before he was able to pass on his wisdom to me, but today I am reminded of one particular Sunday afternoon. The year was 1996 or 1997 and I was just nine or ten. My dad had by then infected me with his love for martial arts movies. He was to me an action star himself. He could do side splits and handstand with almost no effort at all. That afternoon we were sitting in the living room and watching the newly released on VHS Rumble in the Bronx with no other than Jackie Chan, who is known for his impressive fight skills, fight choreography and being his own stunt double. His movies, though action packed, are usually family friendly with moderate violence and nothing extremely upsetting or offensive. We were both admiring his athleticism, and my dad was excited to introduce me to him. He’d say to me, “He does all these dangerous stunts himself, you know? He’s nothing like those Hollywood fakes”. As Jackie Chan kicked, punched, jumped and climbed and surfed his way through the movie, something unexpected happened. His character was about to kiss a girl.
In order to explain what happened next and why it matters in the context of free speech, let me take you back a little. My sister and I often watched movies, either on TV or on VHS, with our parents. The unwritten rule was simple: don’t look when they tell us to. This meant that whenever there was nudity or violence in the movie, we weren’t allowed to see it. This might sound like a weird practice to you, but you have to understand that this was before sex and violence were everywhere. There was no internet, no violent video games, and movies rarely included sex scenes (and when they did, they were like a kiss on the cheek in today’s standards), and music videos focused more on telling a story than on showing tits and asses. Of course, these things did exist, but they did not flood the TV screens like they do today. Not in 1990s Catholic Poland anyway. Those days the only way I could be exposed to a naked female body was by discovering my dad’s secret stash of Playboys, which I did. I remember taking some of the magazines down to my parents’ shop and showing them to their young female employee, Renata. Because I had no real concept of age and I segregated people into grownups and kids, I never thought Ms Renata, as I called her, was perhaps a lot younger than my parents. She might have been twenty at the time. Me and Renata were friends. They sold electronics, so the shop was never too busy. I often came down after school with comic books and we’d read them together. Sometimes, Ms Renata helped me with some schoolwork too. Imagine the surprise on her face when, instead of the latest Batman comic book, I brought down a bunch of Playboys. We looked through them together without a shade of embarrassment. We both laughed when one of the models’ name was Renata. I don’t know if she ever told my parents. You can see how, before the internet or on demand TV, the only time you could see these things was if you physically went to a shop (no self-check outs either), picked up a copy of the dirty magazine, walked up to the cash desk, looked the lady in the eye, handed her the magazine and paid for it. If you’ve never done it, it is a pretty embarrassing experience, trust me. So, you can imagine that even Renata might have not been exposed to such pictures too often.
And now Jackie Chan is kissing the girl. My dad looks at me and, just like a hundred times before, orders me to close my eyes. But this time, I don’t. I look on. In my head, I am ready to see this. Not necessarily because of the Playboys because I don’t remember if I discovered them before or after this afternoon. I just think I am ready. I am not a kid anymore. I want to see the forbidden scene. “I can handle this, dad”, I think to myself. The kiss doesn’t last that long, but it goes on forever in light of my disobedience. My dad is not happy. The look on his face says if all as he repeats, “Don’t look!”. The anger mixed with surprise, disappointment, embarrassment and powerlessness are all painted on his face as he witnesses, what I believe to be, the moment I become a man. “Why?”, I demand. Silence. The movie goes on, Jackie gets the girl and I learn that it’s important to be the good guy of your story, and I also learn that adults do this disgusting thing called kissing – Yuck!
Looking back, I know my parents only tried to protect me from being exposed to what they knew and thought I wasn’t ready to see. I think this is reasonable. Parents should keep their children from harm, even if it means not letting them look at scenes they may not understand or that may upset them. You could say that parents get to censor certain content to protect their children’s vulnerable minds.
What is speech?
“If everything you did was right, you would never know what was wrong“Matthew McConaughey
As I write these words, someone is making a You Tube video expressing their views on climate change. By the time I finish the next sentence, millions of Twitter users will have condensed their complex thoughts into a narrow box of a tweet and posted them on the platform. Some of them will get hundreds, perhaps even thousands of retweets by other users who either agree or disagree with the statement they’re responding to. Somewhere else two friends are having a drink and are trying to settle their argument about the ending of Inception. Some politicians are having a debate about taxes. By the time I finish expressing my views here, millions of students around the world will have raised their hands in the classroom, ready to answer a question or ask one themselves. Millions of preachers and priests around the globe will have told the faithful about the glory of God and his kingdom, while thousands if not millions of job seekers will have declared themselves non – religious on a job application. All while someone somewhere, unaware of it all, is thinking and wondering about the world. He asks questions and ponders the possibilities. He is thinking.
What is speech? It’s all of the above because speech is communication. Speech is thought spoken out loud. Speech is the extension of a thought which then becomes known as “your opinion”. A thought that finds its way out to the world. It takes the shape of an idea, a view, a theory, a narrative, a solution. Of course, not all thoughts, when spoken out loud, lead to scientific breakthroughs or million-dollar ideas, but it is by communicating these thoughts to others, can we create new ones. Only by sharing our views can we find out if we are right or wrong and come back with an upgraded worldview. Without telling others what we think, what we believe to be true, without communicating, it is impossible to replace bad ideas with good ones or see the problem we are facing from a different perspective. We must all believe we are free to speak our mind. We must all value this ancient contract in order to be able to connect, solve problems and continue to prosper. Speech is a platform, the town square for our thoughts to meet, to gather, to mate, and language is a tool that allows them to flirt and create other thoughts. Speech is an arena where thoughts of people, like the gladiators in Ancient Rome, can fight to the death. Free speech is the right of an individual to allow their thoughts to come out and hope to be interacted with. Free speech is the right of an individual to present his or her thoughts to those who will listen. It is their right to do so without the fear of violence, persecution and with hopes of being listened to, understood, agreed or disagreed with, related to, learned from. It is the right to repeat a joke, share a meme. It is their right to say, “I don’t believe you!”. It is the right to let their thoughts, which are largely influenced by the outside world, to be spoken out loud. If speech is not free, and I mean all speech, then neither is thought. If speech becomes a crime, then so does the thought.
What is a thought?
Around the time I found those Playboys, my sister had a pet parrot. We learned that pet birds enjoy seeing their own reflection in the mirror, so we put one in her cage. God, I miss those days – when you couldn’t Google everything so every fact or information you found out felt like a ground-breaking discovery. I think this is what makes my generation unique. We spent our childhoods without our faces glued to mobile phones, our parents had to worry about bruises on our knees and not online predators, sexual content and social media bullying. Now we get to spend our adulthood consuming as much information as we want without taking technology, that makes it possible, for granted. But I digress. The mirror detached from the cage and fell on top of the parrot and she died. My sister was upset. She was only about five or six. The mirror tricked the parrot into thinking she had company. Her tragic death in the loneliness of the cage was caused by something that was supposed to save her sanity.
A thought is like that parrot in the cage. Instead of feathers she is made of words, images and memories. The cage is all she knows. What if she were to escape? What if she were set free? Through the mouth of the cage the parrot would announce her presence, her freedom to the world. And so, out through the window she goes. Still just the same, but now she gets to interact with the great outside. As she flaps her wings awkwardly, trying her best to do what she’s been designed to do, she gets noticed. Other birds (thoughts), who have been free for as long as they can remember, observe her with suspicion. Her unconventional colours and her unfamiliar song threaten, puzzle, fascinate, gain admiration, cause a debate above and below all at once. From this interaction alone, they all learn something they didn’t know before. The birds who all look the same, sing the same, behave the same, have learned that it is possible to be different. They now know that there is a world beyond their colony. The parrot now understands that the outside world can be uninviting. She knows now that she has to learn to communicate. She knows that not everyone will understand her song, its meaning, its context and her intentions. Richer in experience she can now go back to her cage and reflect, then try again tomorrow.
This is what happens to our thoughts. They live in our head. They remain unchanged, unchallenged, unconfirmed for as long as they stay unrevealed. These thoughts, these ideas, claims and theories that form in our heads need to be exposed to the sunlight. Only then can they grow and become better. Bad ideas and radical thoughts, when exposed, can be stopped in their tracks. They can be debunked, criticized, ridiculed, questioned and possibly destroyed. Interesting ideas, theories and points of view, on the other hand, can be pondered, explored, learned from, praised, helpful, revealing and revolutionary. We only ever find out when our thoughts turn into speech. If our idea has the potential to make the world a little better, we won’t know until we share it with someone who can put it into practice. If our opinion is wrong, unfounded, based on false information, formed on incomplete evidence, then only by exposing it to someone who may have already battled with the same arguments, can we really know if we’re onto something or not. If we allow our thought to stare at its own reflection, it may die admiring its own greatness before ever reaching its full potential, or it may live on and forever remain a delusion. I will argue that even if our opinion is clearly wrong or offensive it needs to be free to express. It may be, no matter how incorrect or hateful, based on pure ignorance and indoctrination.
Imagine if the parrot that was set free earlier is some form of a narcist, extremist or a heretic. She loves her blue, green and yellow feathers. After all it’s all she’s ever admired when she stared in her own reflection. Nobody ever challenged her. She flies out of the window and into the city and she sees that pigeons act like savages. They fight, they eat McDonalds leftovers on the street, they lack any manners, they poop everywhere. She comes to a conclusion that all pigeons are inferior to her. All grey birds are inferior, in fact. They are dirty, she thinks. She is now convinced that parrots are smarter, superior, more intelligent, cleaner, smell nicer and are more beautiful than all grey, black and white birds. She is a bigot. We know she is a bigot because we know what she thinks. Most of the time, we don’t know what people, or parrots think. We only know what they decide to share with us. How can we engage with the parrot’s views if we don’t know what they are? If she tells us her opinion, we can then explain to her why she is wrong. Both of us must feel confident that we are free to express ourselves without the threat of violence or punishment. We both must feel comfortable that our thoughts are safe when we let them out of our cage. Without it, no real progress can be made. Our opinions and arguments will never meet, they will stay in our heads and confirm their righteousness in their own reflection. Here they don’t die, like our parrot did earlier, they remain a delusion that never gets debunked.
It seems like in the world today, we prefer to prevent people from expressing their thoughts rather than dealing with those thoughts. Stopping a heretic, extremist or a conspiracy theorist from expressing their views does not eliminate heretics, extremism or conspiracies. It only suppresses an individual’s right to tell their truth, often pushing them further into their illusion by confirming their convictions. Racism, sexism, homophobia still exist despite the so-called hate speech laws. Facebook, Twitter or You Tube can delete offensive content all they want, but it will not turn the world into a big happy politically correct utopia. I am not saying that hateful content should be unfiltered (threats of violence or calls for violence should be reported and deleted), but I am saying that this only makes things look nice on the surface and the problems it tries to solve still exist. Would we prefer our parrot to remain silent about her racism, or would we prefer to know about it and engage with it, find the root of it and try to reason with it? It wouldn’t be easy, it could be impossible, but simply censoring her speech would not solve the problem at all. We can always choose to distance ourselves from the bigots. We are free to think. Speech is the expression and extension of thought. Thoughts seek validation. Speech should, therefore, be free as it is just a thought, just an idea that can be confirmed or debunked only by someone else using his freedom to speak his mind.
Of course, we can all read a book or go online to confirm or debunk our beliefs. But even a book can only exist because the author and the scientists and philosophers, he quoted in his book, all exercised their freedom of speech. Only thanks to free speech can The Bible and The Origin of Species be sold in the same bookstore. Only thanks to freedom of speech can you pick up both of them and decide which idea makes more sense. Freedom of speech of everyone employs your critical thinking. For thousands of years there has been no other truth other than that preached in churches. As a matter of fact, a few hundred years ago, in Europe, you’d face a certain death if you made a scientific discovery or a claim that went against the teachings of Christianity. In 1600, an Italian man, Giordano Bruno, was burned alive for suggesting that Earth was not the centre of the Universe (something Galileo got away with it just a few decades later and is now credited for that discovery).
Now, thanks to free speech you can listen to ten different people telling you what they think. You can agree with some and tell others why they are wrong, and they will tell you why you are wrong. The thoughts would be mating and fighting again. This is how critical thinking works. It wouldn’t be possible if our thoughts remained trapped in our heads or censored by those who think you are not ready to see them, that you are not capable of making your own judgement, that you are not an intelligent adult who can think for himself, that you need to be protected from your own thoughts. We don’t need our fathers to cover our eyes anymore. We are ready to see nudity because nudity is truth. We are capable of deciding what to do with it. I might have been just a little kid, but I didn’t go around kissing everyone after seeing Jackie Chan do it. I wasn’t interested in it. Twenty – three years later, I can read psychology books, news articles, watch You Tube videos about UFOs, ghosts or politics, documentaries about the Universe, listen to David Icke talk about lizards, judge Trump’s presidency based on his policies or speeches. I can do all that and decide for myself what I think and believe. I don’t need my views presented to me and formed by a third party. What I need is free and equal access to all sources of information, so I can evaluate it and create my own worldview based on which I can then vote, campaign, work and raise my children. I can be wrong but let me be wrong.
We are still being parented and the content presented to us is filtered and moderated. It’s almost as if we are back in the 90s, all sitting in my living room with my dad, who is deciding what we are and aren’t allowed to see, what we may not understand, what is incorrect or “false information”. He is our moderator and our fact checker. He is our daddy, and his name is Google. You can click here Vaccines or Immune System? – Deserts of Mars (wordpress.com) to see just how the information you google is manipulated before it is given to you. Don’t get put off by the title, it was just a quick experiment on what search results you get from Google and a less popular search engine when you search for the same exact phrase.
Of course, words have consequences. Whatever you say may be used against you. You tell the wrong joke at the wrong party, and you will be remembered as that inappropriate guy never to appear on the guest list again. The same joke worked when you said it to a few of your friends, and it worked even better when it was said by Ricky Gervais on the stage and in front of a thousand people. But at that party, people didn’t appreciate your dark humour. What for one person is “you shouldn’t joke about these things”, is “I know I shouldn’t laugh, but it’s so funny!”, to another. The line is different for everyone which means no joke is inappropriate.
Of course, this has to do with political correctness and hate speech. The former has been weaponised to change how people think and the latter has been relabelled and criminalised so that anything “offensive” you say can be used against you. But remember, offense is taken, not given. What should be just a disapproval of your family and friends, now has real criminal consequences. What people who create these laws don’t seem to understand is that you can’t put a joke behind bars. You can’t fine an opinion. No matter how offensive or controversial they sound. You can’t arrest a room full of people who laugh at a racist joke, so why should you arrest the one saying it? The same joke said in a different room would be met with a disappointment and disapproval and that should be the end of it.
It isn’t only offensive content or opinions that you can get in trouble for. I remember the time when you could go on You Tube and go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about 9/11. Plenty of them arguing that either the US government or the Jews were behind the attack. These videos had hundreds of thousands of views, which over ten years ago was a big deal. I admit, I did shortly buy into the theories, but apart from wasting my time watching hours of content, it changed nothing in my life. Now, Google, who bought You Tube a few years ago, are acting like our daddy again. If you type in 9/11 in the search box, your top results will be the so – called reputable sources like CNN and other usual suspects (despite having far less views than the more intriguing conspiracy videos). Alternative journalism, commentary and sources of information are as good as dead on You Tube. Your daddy, Google, not only tells you to look away, but also deletes all the content in case you’re not able to think critically and make your own judgement about it. What used to be a great platform for people to share ideas in a video format has now become just another TV channel. Unless you’re subscribed to various Youtubers, your landing page will have some music videos, movie trailers and news stories and it will be very difficult for you to find other people like yourself and find out what they think. You Tube, Google, Facebook and increasingly the government are like a restaurant where you don’t get shown what’s on the menu. Instead they serve you a meal they think you should eat and enjoy. In this virtual restaurant you are not trusted to decide what meal is good for you. You are not trusted to look at the menu, read the ingredients for yourself and choose your food. You’re just served the same vegan salad as all other guests – bon appétit.
Over the last four years, since I started paying attention, I have witnessed a lot of controversial views being silenced, stomped down, and their authors or even messengers deleted off the internet. I’ve seen a biology professor being removed from Twitter for stating a scientific fact about males and females which went against the transgender ideology. Offensive charm, triggering rants and controversial views got Katie Hopkins deleted from the certainly left leaning platform as well. Stefan Molyneaux, a You Tuber with nearly a million subscribers and nearly a decade of making thought provoking, philosophical videos, was removed from the platform without a warning. Not to mention hundreds of lecturers and speakers on US campuses that were cancelled or met with protests by students who were triggered by their very name. Just this week I read about another attempt at censoring controversial views. Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist, University professor and a published author. His well thought out, evidence based and eloquently presented and controversial views gained him a large following as well as cult – like hatred. He has become a target of the Left who labelled him with every “ism” you can think of. His publisher, Penguin, have just announced his new book Beyond Order – 12 More Rules for Life. Some of Penguin employees, who believe Peterson to be a Right – Wing fascist, demand the book to be cancelled. A few months ago, a similar thing happened at Spotify, when Joe Rogan, who is Peterson’s close friend, moved his extremely popular podcast from You Tube to Spotify. Some staff at Spotify were not happy to host The Joe Rogan Experience, so they protested. Luckily, both Penguin and Spotify didn’t bend the knee. Their triggered staff however sound a lot like they don’t want you to see the menu and decide what information you want to consume.
Speaking of Joe Rogan, one of his guests and now the 2nd richest man in the world, Elon Musk, said on his show that sometime soon we might have mind reading technology. He suggested that a microchip could not only collect your thoughts but communicate them to somebody else’s brain through their chip. He argued that this technology would allow ideas to communicate more efficiently without the barrier of our vocabulary or inability to express ourselves. With a chip like this, I wouldn’t have to spend hours writing this trying to make my opinion of free speech clear. I’d simply have to transfer my thoughts through my chip to yours without having to explain what I mean. You’d just get it instantly by downloading words and images that form that idea or a thought.
My dad was right to protect my ten – year old self from offensive content I wasn’t ready for. My compass of right and wrong was still developing, and I needed guidance or perhaps he just didn’t want to or didn’t know how to address the questions I’d have after seeing that kiss. His censorship was justified. So where does this put the government or the social media platforms who take it upon themselves to decide what you can and cannot be exposed to? Censorship of speech, opinions, views is not only Orwellian, but also suggests that those who do it consider you and me to be incapable of critical thinking or dealing with negativity and offensive content. They think it is up to them, just like my dad did, to protect your eyes and ears from seeing and hearing what they think you wouldn’t be able to process. They think we are operating on that still developing compass and need them to hold our hand. They think that if you watch an interview with David Icke, you will immediately become a conspiracy theorist. They think that if you listen to Katie Hopkins, you will not be able to filter her words yourself and you will become what people accuse her of being – a racist, which I don’t believe to be the case. These people, whether they sit at the headquarters of Facebook, Google or Twitter or in the Parliament genuinely think that they are superior to us therefore get to decide what you can and cannot read, watch or listen. Yet somehow porn is easier to access than ever. What is so dangerous about believing a so called “conspiracy theory” or spreading or being exposed to so called “hate speech”? What is it that at the same time makes porn so widely available? We are all adults, and we don’t need the information, no matter how crazy or offensive, filtered by these people who think they know better. It is condescending to us and in the long run, ineffective at achieving whatever they’re trying to achieve. Are we not allowed to decide for ourselves anymore?
We already moderate our thoughts and filter what we share with people. We do it because we know words have consequences. We want to maintain social life, so we don’t tell people what we think all the time. Just imagine if someone had access to your mind just for a day. How many times did you think of something offensive? What are some of the taboos you battle over in your head sometimes? Did you ever fantasise about doing something horrible to someone you know? Do you ever have these dark thoughts that just pop into your head out of nowhere? How many of those, if you spoke them out loud, would get you in trouble or make your family, friends and colleagues distance themselves from you? Imagine if someone could open up this diary in your head and read every page. All the embarrassing memories you don’t think of too often, but when you do, you relive that embarrassment again. All those times you imagined beating up that customer. Throughout our day, we only give people a taste of what’s in that diary. Only the stuff we want them to know. In a way, we personalise the menu of what’s on offer in our head. But that’s ok. We want to maintain that friendship, keep that job, see that girl or man again. We censor ourselves and we know when to not say things that are considered crazy or controversial. Unfortunately, now, the Scottish government wants to take away your right to free speech even at your dinner table. They want it to be criminal to make a “controversial” comment while talking to your family and friends at your table. Think about it.
And yet, despite our self-moderation, thought crime is possible. It is possible because we read our diary out to people. We share some of its pages with friends and on social media. By doing so, we give people access into parts of our mind. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes it’s cold, offensive and unfriendly and aggressive. But, if this invitation into your head triggers the wrong response, you may end up losing your friends, your job or worse – with a criminal record preventing you from taking on certain jobs in the future. All because of your thoughts. All because what was in your head came out through your mouth and landed on somebody’s sensitive ears. Now your friends don’t want to be associated with your controversial views, your boss thinks they’re bad for business or for staff integrity, and the law enforcement must defend those fragile feelings of those you did or might have offended, so they must punish you. Your speech is now that kiss scene my dad tried to “protect” me from because he “knew” what was best for me.
Freedom of speech is your right to express yourself; it is your right to be wrong; it is your right to disagree; it is your right to speak your truth; it is your right to explore ideas; it is your right to protest; it is your right to demand answers and evidence; it is your right to consent to refuse and to deny; it is your right to lie; it is your right to think out loud; it is your right to teach and to learn from others; it is your right to laugh at a joke; it is your right to defend your beliefs; it is your right to vote; your right to demand justice; it is your right to listen and say you don’t believe; it is your right to write a tweet, a blog or a book; it is your right to say the unspeakable only because you first thought the unthinkable; it is your right to criticise or to praise. If any authority tries to rob you of that right, they are inevitably robbing you of your consciousness and your right to think.
The bottom line is this. There is time and place to speak our mind. We should all be able to freely hold our beliefs and express our opinions without the interference of the government, social media platforms or our boss if they happen to be your friend of Facebook. Free speech allows us to argue and debate, disagree and criticise. It allows us to listen to and read about different ideas, problems. Free speech allows diversity of opinion, diversity of thinking which are often key to solving problems in the company to figuring out how best to tackle a crisis like COVID19. Without free speech you are not exposed to different ideas. This disables your critical thinking and the ability to think for yourself and shape your own opinions. Similarly, when your phone upgrade is due you surely spend at least a little while comparing the latest phones to choose the one that suits your needs best. The freedom of Apple or Samsung to provide you with the options is your freedom to choose from them. We need free speech. We must not let the corporations or the government take it away from us because when it comes down to it, this is one of our fundamental human rights, given not by them but by Mother Nature herself when she endowed us with the ability to think and to speak. We must not hand it over to the state because without their suits and titles they are just the same as us, governed by the same laws that come from Mother Nature.
Speech is thought, just louder.